In June 1994, 10-year-old Kristen Fletemeyer sat in a theater, mesmerized by the opening scene of “The Lion King” — a rippling golden-orange sunrise shining down onto the African savanna, as majestic animals undulated to the rhythmic beat of “Circle of Life.”
She left the theater with the movie’s songs replaying in her head. Across the country that summer, children were belting out their own garbled take on the Zulu chant (“Ah zabenya!”) that opened the movie. The Swahili phrase “Hakuna Matata” entered the English lexicon. After the film came out on VHS the following March, parents kept it on a stubborn loop to appease their kids.
Fletemeyer, 34, now has three girls of her own to appease. Like her own parents, she draws from the deep library of Disney classics to entertain them. They’ve especially enjoyed “Beauty and the Beast” and “Cinderella” — first, the original animated versions Fletemeyer grew up on, and recently the live-action remakes that have been a box-office success for the studio.
Now comes the much-anticipated remake of “The Lion King,” opening this weekend. For Fletemeyer, this one is special: The original was the first movie she saw in theaters without her parents.
“I was around the same age as my oldest daughter, so I’m putting myself in that memory,” the Denver resident said.
The new “Lion King” is arriving at a resonant time, 25 years after the first. The wide-eyed children who saw the original movie during its theatrical release have grown up. They are in or approaching their 30s — and many have kids who are around the age they were in 1994. They’re revisiting an old favorite as parents — but in a retelling that looks radically different from the one they know and love. Instead of lush animation, the remake uses computer-generated imagery to mimic real-life animals who talk and sing. Parents hope their kids will feel the same sense of silent wonderment as they once did, eyes glued to the big screen.
Re-watching the film as an adult elicits different emotions than in 1994, said Vee Gonzalez, 31. “That movie is deep for a kid,” the Riverside, Calif., mother said, laughing. She’s anticipating the new release as much as her 5-year-old son Mark, who grew up with a Simba plushie and a “Lion King”-themed nursery.
Mark was transfixed by the previews for the remake, with its hyper-realistic renderings of the scenes he was so familiar with. “Is that the Lion King?” he asked Gonzalez, urgently pointing at the television screen.
As regular Disneyland visitors, Gonzalez thinks she’s more enthusiastic than most parents for the new movie. But some mega-Disney fans were planning to take off work for the premiere (“Our kids are little and this is their first movie,” explained one on Facebook) and had been counting down the days until its release. A couple who is celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary alongside the film even took a trip to Walt Disney World with their young daughter to see the park’s stage production in anticipation of seeing it on the big screen.
But for most families, preparation for the new “Lion King” means re-watching the original — over and over again.
With two young sons, Suzanne Ardo rarely gets to watch the Disney princess movies that enchanted her childhood. But she has seen “The Lion King” around 30 to 40 times with her oldest, 4-year-old Mason. (Her 2-year-old son can’t comprehend the movie yet.)
“It’s a story that has been a part of my life in many different ways,” said Ardo, 37, of Columbus, Ohio. She was 12 during the original release, and saw the Tony-winning Broadway stage version in 2003. Two years ago, she watched the stage production with Mason at Disney World, which spurred his ongoing obsession with the movie. These days, he lugs around a Simba plushie — a toy she also owned as a child — to day care and to bed.
As the release date inched closer, the rollout has reminded her of 1994 — the buzz around the star-studded soundtrack, the riveting trailers and the heightened anticipation from kids of all ages. As in 1994, some parents are worrying about how their child will perceive Mufasa’s death — especially with this new film’s vividly realistic visuals.
The new look that Disney is giving its old cartoon classics has prompted a lot of discussion. When Mary Evans, 31, was preparing to take her two sons to see the recent live-action remake of “Aladdin,” her 7-year-old had some concerns.
“We are East Indian, and Ravi is very much into identifying cultures and what he can relate to,” she said. “Aladdin” excited him, because he saw himself represented in the mischievous prince. But while he enjoyed the animated version so much, Ravi initially was hesitant to watch the new movie after seeing the Broadway musical where it appeared that a white actress was playing Jasmine.
“We had a conversation about why Disney picks certain actors who might not best reflect the role,” Evans said.
For ‘The Lion King,” she observed how her boys reacted to the trailers and movie advertisements. Because both have been attentive so far, including her 2-year-old son, she thinks they’ll be engaged with the visuals and sound inside the theater.
The talking (and singing) animals — when posed against a natural landscape — are unsettling to some adults who are attuned to quirky animation. But most kids are delighted by the sight, although they have raised questions about their lifelike nature. While recent reboots such as “The Jungle Book” and “Dumbo” featured computer-generated animals, they also feature human actors, making the effects less jarring.
After Ravi asked her about the talking animals in the trailer, Evans took him to a local museum in Portland, Ore., to view an exhibit on the science behind Pixar’s animation. It explained how lifelike cartoons are made and, for the most part, satisfied his curiosities.
Like most Disney fans, Evans hopes for the reboot to mimic the original plotlines as much as possible, or at least do it justice. Regardless, watching these films with her kids triggers a bout of childhood nostalgia, and she can’t help but smile fondly at their reactions.
“When you’re in the theaters, it just reopens the magic of the film as a parent,” Evans said.